- Created: Thursday, 12 February 2015 12:12
- Written by Nicki Jameson
Between 7 and 9 January three gunmen carried out a succession of high profile terrorist attacks in Paris, killing 17 people. These attacks, in the heart of one of the capital cities of western imperialism, led to an immediate reaction across Europe and beyond. Social media latched on to the solidarity message ‘Je suis Charlie’ and world leaders, including Cameron, Merkel. Rajoy, Netanyahu, and Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, flocked to Paris to be photographed marching in support of ‘democracy’, ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘western values’. Nicki Jameson reports.
Twelve of the dead were gunned down at the office of controversial weekly publication Charlie Hebdo on 7 January; the following day a policewoman was shot dead in a Parisian suburb, and on 9 January there were four deaths in a siege at a kosher supermarket in Vincennes to the north east of Paris. The gunmen, brothers Saif and Cherif Kouachi, who claimed allegiance to Al Qaeda in Yemen, and Amedy Coulibaly, who said he was acting in the name of the Islamic State, were also shot dead by the police, bringing the total death toll to 20.
Charlie Hebdo was a known target and had been attacked before. Whilst satirising a range of subjects, including the fascist Front National and the Catholic Church, the magazine had long been in the spotlight for publishing highly provocative cartoons ridiculing the Muslim religion, many using graphic sexual imagery. In 2006 it republished the infamous Danish cartoons caricaturing the prophet Mohammed and in 2011 was firebombed the night before the publication of an edition of the magazine styled as ‘Sharia Hebdo’.
The killing of journalists who produce offensive cartoons and people who are simply shopping in a Jewish supermarket is completely indefensible and those who mourn their loss deserve our sympathy. However, the response to the killings by the state and media, both in France and Britain, is awash with hypocrisy, and the outrage by western leaders is extremely selective. Incidents akin to the Paris killings occur regularly all over the world, many in the cities of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, which have been wrecked and left completely unstable by western invasion or air assault. In the very same week that the 17 died in Paris, 2,000 people were slaughtered by Boko Haram in Baga in northern Nigeria; yet no world leaders flocked to Lagos to march in protest and the international media was muted in its response. Closer to home, the Paris deaths happened on the second anniversary of the assassination in the very same city of three Kurdish women activists – Sara, Rojbin and Ronahi. Their murder attracted little media coverage, no outcry and no police investigation into who was responsible.
‘Freedom of expression’
The murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists has been widely condemned as an attack on ‘freedom of expression’; however the application of this ‘freedom’, both by the French state and by Charlie Hebdo itself, is also selective. For example, in July 2014 as Israel bombed Gaza killing over 2,000 civilians, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve banned pro-Palestinian demonstrations from marching through Paris. And while Charlie Hebdo defends its right to say anything it likes about Islam, in 2008 it sacked cartoonist Sine, following complaints and legal action against a cartoon of his lampooning the son of then president Nicolas Sarkozy for converting to Judaism.
In the aftermath of the January 2015 killings, apparently without themselves seeing any irony in their statement the French authorities issued an order to ‘crack down on hate speech … to protect freedom of expression from comments that could incite violence or hatred’. By 19 January at least 69 people had been arrested for making such comments in contravention of laws against ‘apologism for terrorism’. They include the comedian Dieudonné, who wrote on Facebook ‘Je suis Charlie Coulibaly’ and a 16-year-old school student from Nantes who posted his own version of a controversial Charlie Hebdo cover, in which he replaced the original Egyptian protester depicted as complaining that the Koran was useless to defend him against a hail of bullets, with the Charlie Hebdo editor doing the same with his own publication. Even an eight-year-old has been questioned on suspicion of ‘defending terrorism’.
The entire British media also jumped straight on the ‘freedom of expression’ bandwagon to the extent that Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle commented that he was ‘reading a defence of free speech in a paper that tried to have me arrested and charged with obscenity for making a joke about the Queen’.
France’s history of racism and imperialism
Like Britain, France is an imperialist country with a long and invidious history of colonialism and racism. As Robert Fisk wrote in The Independent (‘Charlie Hebdo: Paris attack brothers’ campaign of terror can be traced back to Algeria in 1954’, 9 January 2015), it came as no surprise that the Kouachi brothers were of Algerian origin. The brutal French colonial occupation of Algeria lasted 132 years and over a million and a half people died in the liberation war of 1954-62. And as Fisk details, in October 1961 some 30,000 Algerian protesters staged a banned independence rally in Paris, which was subject to a large scale murderous attack by French police units. Up to 600 Algerians were beaten to death in police barracks or thrown into the Seine. Almost 40 years later, Maurice Papon, the police chief who supervised security operations and who apparently directed the massacre, was convicted for crimes against humanity under Petain’s Vichy regime during the Nazi occupation of France.
Today, some five million Algerians live in France, as do approximately 1.2 million black Africans from French colonies such as Mali – birthplace of the parents of Amedy Coulibaly – in which France continues to exert its military dominance. Despite the French state loudly proclaiming the 1789 revolutionary motto of ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’ for all its citizens, they experience ghettoisation and routine discrimination in employment, education and housing. Furthermore, whilst this originally took primarily an overtly racist form, in recent decades it has become increasingly vocalised in religious terms. Using the cover of France’s secular constitution (another gain of the 1789 revolution which separated church from state), the French government has been at the forefront of attacks on the right of Muslim women to dress as they please. While in Britain, for example, some schools and workplaces have successfully prevented the wearing of the niqab (full veil), France has gone further, banning the niqab from all public places, and does not permit even the hijab (headscarf) to be worn in schools.
It is against this background that the satirising of Islam and its followers by Charlie Hebdo and the defence of ‘free speech’ by the French government and media must be understood. Charlie Hebdo’s supporters emphasise that the publication has been sued 12 times for attacking Catholicism, but this is irrelevant: French troops are not occupying any Catholic countries; French Catholics are not being subject to racial and religious persecution and Catholic women in France are not being criminalised for their dress.
Who is to blame?
France is one of the two leading powers in the EU, sits on the UN Security Council and continues to be a major belligerent on the world stage. Although it refused to join the US-British aggression against Iraq in 2003, this non-intervention stance was soon reversed, and France has sent troops to Afghanistan, bombed Iraq and been a strong supporter of Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow the government of Bashar Al Assad, as well as intervening in Libya, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and the Central African Republic.
And, as Egyptian/French Marxist Samir Amin has pointed out, France is also responsible for nurturing the very ‘Islamism’ to which disenfranchised second-generation migrants such as the Kouachis and Coulibaly are now turning. Together with Britain and the US, it has mercilessly attacked states in which more secular governments acted as a brake on ‘political Islam’, such as Iraq under Saddam Hussein or Libya under Muammar Gadaffi, while continuing to work hand-in-glove with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the other Gulf states, which support and finance the groups which carry out this type of attack. Imperialist countries have relied heavily on this dangerous tactic of propping up fundamentalist Muslim groups as proxies with which to fight their enemies since the 1980s when the CIA organised with the mujahedin in Afghanistan to overthrow the communist government of Mohammad Najibullah.
Backlash and repression
Following the massive march for peace and unity in Paris on 11 January after the killings, there has been little peace or unity; instead the flames of conflict have been fanned relentlessly.
By 17 January there had been over 60 reported attacks on Muslim targets across France, with countless more minor incidents believed to have gone unreported; 26 mosques had been subject to attacks ranging from the throwing of pigs’ heads to assault with firebombs, gunfire and grenades.
Charlie Hebdo has produced a new edition of the magazine, featuring the prophet Mohammed on the front cover crying and holding a sign saying ‘Je suis Charlie’, under the headline ‘All is forgiven’ – the best-selling issue ever, by a very long way, with a print run of seven million copies, as opposed to the publication’s usual 40,000.
Meanwhile, the French state, led by the Socialist Party, has ramped up its bellicosity, deploying 10,000 troops and 120,000 security forces at sites inside the country and announcing the sending of nuclear powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle to the Gulf to assist in the fight against ISIS.
Exploitation of the Paris events has not been limited to France. Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, who dared to march in Paris for peace and freedom, while dripping in the blood of thousands of Palestinian men, women and children, was quick to assure French Jews that they had a safe homeland if they wanted to ‘return’ to Israel.
And France’s chief partners in imperialist crime, Britain and the US, immediately jumped on the opportunity to gain support for repressive measures they were previously finding hard to sell, in particular the expansion of surveillance powers, with MI5 insisting that internet encryption is a major obstacle in its fight against terrorism. The British Parliament is currently in the process of passing the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill, which will give the state the power to prevent alleged terrorists leaving the country, or returning once they have left, including rendering some temporarily stateless, as well as making statutory the ‘Prevent’ strategy, saddling teachers, doctors, local councils, prison governors and others in a supervisory position with a legal duty to spy on those in their care and report any signs they are being ‘drawn into terrorism’. Although it may nitpick over some clauses, the Labour Party seems set to give the Bill its full support – no great surprise, given the vast raft of draconian anti-terrorism legislation it brought in whilst in government between 1997 and 2010.
There will be more of this to come on all fronts. More racism, militarisation and repression – and in response yet more attacks such as those in Paris. On every occasion during the past decade in which there have been such attacks in the heartland of imperialism – be it in London, Madrid or Paris – we have highlighted how righteous anger at the barbarity and racism of the imperialist nations which claim to be champions of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ has led the perpetrators to take this desperate and dangerous course, and how, in the absence of a serious international anti-imperialist, anti-racist movement which is not side-lined and watered down by opportunist politicians, angry young men and women will continue to be drawn into this dead-end. The need to build such an anti-imperialist, anti-racist movement has never been more urgent.
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 243 February/March 2015